LAWRENCE, Mass. – School Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy, who came to Lawrence, a majority Latino city, in 2001, is under attack for having fired 24 bilingual teachers for not passing an oral English examination while he, himself, has repeatedly failed a similar exam.
Laboy’s critics say he was hired to help destroy the bilingual program here. He changed it into an English-immersion program for students of limited English proficiency. Until then, the bilingual program taught students their subjects in their native language while they learned English.
From the beginning Laboy attacked the bilingual program and told parents their children should learn Spanish at home or in church. Now he says that English is his second language and that is why he did not pass the exam in English for educators. Laboy has taken the test three times.
After the news of Laboy’s failing the test was made public, lawyers for the teachers and the school department reached an agreement to bring the teachers back into other jobs until they pass their own tests. Even though the School Committee reportedly rejected the agreement, saying that it would put other employees out of work, Mayor Michael Sullivan (who also chairs the School Committee) announced that the teachers would be rehired into other positions with $1 million of extra state money.
Although Laboy suspended the Latino and Cambodian teachers without pay because they had marked accents, he is still receiving his own $3,000 per week salary. Recently he went before the School Committee to ask for a raise of eight percent and a half million dollar life insurance policy.
Laboy began the English immersion program before the voters of Massachusetts approved such an approach for all the schools, making bilingual programs illegal. The anti-bilingual education initiative was financed by California millionaire Ron Unz, who has sponsored similar referendums in other states. Although the majority of voters in this state voted against bilingual education, 94 percent of Latinos voted to defend it, according to voter exit polls.
Graciela Trilla, an assistant principal fired by Laboy, told the World that the superintendent has taken his cue from successive Republican administrations in the state that have “dedicated themselves to dismantling the bilingual program with a concentration on the Hispanic communities.”
Trilla said linguistic theory and research shows that early childhood immersion is most dangerous because “we have a person who is educated in neither of the two languages.” Laboy is a living example of the problems that result, she added.
Another teacher who did not want to be identified alleged that Laboy fired a teacher because the teacher wanted to alert parents about the attack on bilingual education, and that he forced early retirement on three teachers.
Jose Balbuena, a parent activist and former School Committee candidate, commented, “For me it is a type of fraud. He came as a Hispanic to destroy the bilingual program.” Balbuena is a former chair of the Parents’ Advisory Council for the Lawrence School Department.
Marcos Devers, City Council president and a high school teacher himself, said that “it’s a shame for our community” said Leboy “should give back dignity and respect and their jobs to the teachers.” Devers said it is time to “set things straight and stop making concessions to the conservatives.”
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